By Samantha L. Brooks and Karla Grossenbacher

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employees’ use of their personal social media accounts in ways that could impact an employer’s business present challenges to employers.

In this case, a Maryland state government employee claimed that she was retaliated against for a Facebook post where she referred to a Maryland gubernatorial candidate as an “a**clown.” In granting a preliminary injunction and reinstating an employee’s job duties, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland held that reassignment of the employee’s duties three days after the Facebook post was retaliation for protected speech, particularly where the employer could not demonstrate how the post harmed the employer. Thomson v. Belton, No. ELH-18-3116, 2018 WL 6173443 (D. Md. Nov. 26, 2018).

The plaintiff served as the public information officer for the Natural Resources Police (NRP), a subdivision of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). She was a public employee and not a political appointee. As the public information officer, plaintiff acted as a spokesperson for the DNR, responded to media inquiries, administered the NRP’s social media accounts, and issued press releases, among other duties.

On September 17, 2018, while in her home, using her own electronic device and her own Facebook account, she responded to a Facebook post of a colleague by referring to Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous as an “a**clown.” Plaintiff’s comment was prompted by Mr. Jealous’ decision to veto a reporter’s participation as a panelist in the only gubernatorial debate with Governor Larry Hogan. The following day, plaintiff’s supervisor asked her whether she had posted “*a**clown” on Facebook. She acknowledged that she had, offered to delete the post, and immediately did so of her own volition. Of note, plaintiff’s Facebook post did not violate the DNR’s social medial policy. Less than one week after the post, plaintiff was stripped of the majority of her media-related duties and they were reassigned, although she was permitted to draft press releases. Neither her title nor salary were changed.

On October 9, 2018, plaintiff filed suit against Mark Belton, Secretary of the DNR, in his individual and official capacity alleging violations of plaintiff’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. She also filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and/or Preliminary Injunction which, upon agreement by the parties, was treated as a Motion for Preliminary Injunction.

The defendant argued that plaintiff was demoted because of protracted performance issues, and not because of the Facebook post. Specifically, the defendant highlighted three instances where plaintiff had failed to communicate the happening of newsworthy events, including the discovery of a chest containing human bones at a beach in Ocean City, Maryland, the drowning death of a child, and a news article that reported a motor vehicle accident involving an NRP officer which resulted in the death of a family pet.

Since plaintiff was a public employee, the Court considered plaintiff’s claim under the Connick/Pickering standard, i.e. (1) whether there was an adverse action, (2) whether the employee was speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern, (3) whether the employee’s interest in speaking on the matter of public concern outweighed the government’s interest in managing the workplace, (4) and whether the employee’s speech was a substantial factor in the adverse action. Thomson, 2018 WL 6173443 at *15. See Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968) and Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983).

Adverse Action

The Court found that the plaintiff was subject to an adverse action. Prior to the reassignment of her media-related duties, plaintiff’s most important and most significant duties involved direct contact with the media. After reassignment, she was prohibited from such direct contact. The Court found that her new role — without the media duties — was less prestigious and less interesting. Id. at 21. The Court also noted plaintiff’s reassignment was neither trivial nor de minimus solely because plaintiff’s pay and some responsibilities remained unchanged.

Matter of Public Concern

The Court noted that plaintiff’s comment pertained to a matter of public concern. The Court further noted that discussion about political candidates — including plaintiff’s one word Facebook comment — fell within the realm of First Amended protected speech. The Court held that plaintiff’s comment was “in response to the posts of others on the issue of the candidate’s decision to veto a reporter from serving on the panel for a key election debate. This suggests that she was participating in an online public discussion . . . .” Id. at *22. Finally, the Court noted that plaintiff was speaking as a private citizen and not in the course of her official duties.

Employer’s Interest in Managing the Workplace

Defendant did not provide any evidence that plaintiff’s speech harmed NRP or DNR operations. The only harm the defendant could identify was that calling a political candidate a derogatory name and using inappropriate language was contrary to goals of the NRP. The Court held, however, that “inappropriate language unrelated to the employee’s employment, and spoken outside the workplace, does not intrinsically harm the employer’s interests.” Id. at 27.

Speech was a Substantial Factor in Adverse Action

The Court held that the reassignment of plaintiff’s duties was in retaliation for her Facebook post. The temporal proximity of plaintiff’s job assignment, just three days after Facebook post, clearly demonstrated that plaintiff’s protected speech was a substantial factor in the reassignment of her duties. Id. at 24. Of note, the Court noted that the record did not corroborate defendant’s claims that plaintiff had performance issues.

The court ultimately held that plaintiff was entitled to a preliminary injunction requiring the immediate reinstatement of plaintiff’s job duties.

Private Employer Takeaways

Have a social media policy! Employees who work for private, non-governmental employers do not generally have First Amendment protection for their speech in the workplace. Before taking any action based on an employee’s speech on social media, employers should first consult their social media policies to determine whether there has been a violation of the policy. Employers should also determine if the employee has some other interest at issue, such as speech that could implicate the protections of Title VII, speech that could violate the employer’s EEO or anti-harassment policy, or speech that implicates an employee’s rights under various union regulations, before taking any action.

Document, document, document! Employers must remember to document performance deficiencies or mistakes. If employers need to justify a personnel action or if litigation ever arises, it will be important to have a contemporaneous record of performance issues.

Those with questions or concerns about any of these issues or topics are encouraged to reach out to the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employee Relations, Social Media Practice Group, or Workplace Policies and Handbooks teams.

By Kristen Peters

Seyfarth Synopsis: Even if bad Glassdoor reviews have you feeling like you need to fight back, employers should stay out of the ring, and instead implement social media policies that clearly define prohibited behavior and disclosures, while spelling out the consequences for violations. Employers must not retaliate against employees for their lawful out-of-office behavior.

People are used to sharing everything about their lives—from what they ate for breakfast to the funny name on their Starbucks Frappuccino. But this behavior can be scary for employers when current and former employees take to social media to complain about their jobs—or even defame their boss. Of particular interest are online platforms such as Glassdoor, which purport to provide “inside” information about working conditions, salaries, and company culture.

So what can an employer do when an employee posts a negative comment on Glassdoor about the company? The answer is … not much. The law often protects an employee’s off-duty speech. But the law does not protect defamatory speech, and it does not protect the disclosure of confidential, protected information. So proactive employers can take steps to make sure they are not unfairly smeared online and that their trade secrets are protected. We have a few suggestions in that regard.

What Are You Tryin’ To Prove: Don’t Get In The Ring

Websites such as Glassdoor, which has about 30 million monthly users, allow current and former employees to criticize or praise a company, typically through anonymous posts. Though many such sites screen critiques to prevent the posting of offensive comments and those that would disclose private information, they nonetheless present a conundrum for employers: Do you ignore criticism—even if it’s false—or do you respond to it? The former tactic can permit damage to an employer brand to go unchecked; the latter can make an employer look defensive.

In this new age of information, job applicants search employer review sites for information about companies. Responding to a negative review can help your brand if you do so in a way that shows the organization is genuinely committed to improving. But a response could also provide more fodder for further negativity, so it’s best to try to get ahead of the problem by making changes in-house, if necessary.

If your employees are posting on social media outside of working hours, California’s constitutional right to privacy can protect them from retaliation. Labor Code section 96(k) protects employees where they have engaged in lawful conduct asserting “recognized constitutional rights,” such as free speech postings on social media, occurring during nonworking hours away from the employer’s premises. A better avenue is to get ahead of the problem and educate employees about what they can and can’t post online about the company.

Put Your Robe On—And Implement a Social Media Policy

You can restrict free speech online for current employees with a social media policy (but only up to a point!). Employers should have a social media policy that prohibits posting confidential information about the company (and perhaps about posting anything about the company at all) without permission from the company’s public relations group. Every employee is required to follow the company’s legally compliant policies even if they are stricter than what the law would otherwise allow. If an employee violates your policies, that employee could be subject to employment discipline up to and including termination.

That said, there are limits to the restrictions employers can place on what employees can say about them online. The National Labor Relations Act protects the rights of workers to discuss wages and working conditions with other workers. These protections apply to posts on social media, so your social media policy cannot prevent employees from communicating with other employees online about the company’s pay or working conditions, such as might be the case with a Glassdoor review.

For example, in analyzing one company’s social media policy that forbade employees from making anonymous posts about the company online, the NLRB’s general counsel found that “requiring employees to publicly self-identify in order to participate in protected activity imposes an unwarranted burden on Section 7 rights [of the National Labor Relations Act]. Thus, we found this rule banning anonymous comments unlawfully overbroad.”

You Never Got Me Down—Employers’ One-Two Punch Combo for Dealing with Social Media

  • It is prudent for employers to prepare and implement a social media in the workplace policy in order to avoid risks of disclosure of confidential and proprietary information and claims of cyberbullying, harassment, and discrimination.
  • Social media policies should clearly articulate the legitimate business interests the employer seeks to protect, as well as provide clear definitions of prohibited behavior and private and confidential information, and spell out the consequences for violations of the policy.
  • Employers should use caution when disciplining employees based on social networking activities, as certain union and nonunion employee rights need to be considered.
  • An employer may discipline an employee for posting negative comments on a social networking site if the employee’s comments are offensive or inappropriate, and not related to employment issues, and should do so on a consistent basis.

Workplace Solutions: Employers should open up a dialogue with employees about social media and encourage them to bring grievances to Human Resources, instead of airing their grievances online. Employers should also avoid retaliating against employees for posting on social media outside of work hours, and implement social media policies that clearly articulate the penalties for posting confidential information, and any defamatory statements.

By Rashal G. Baz, Katherine Mendez, and Chelsea D. Mesa

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers are now being presented with more options to outsource workplace complaints through third party companies and mobile apps. This may create an ease in grievance reporting for the employee, but does not necessarily shield employer liability.

Harassment in the workplace is not a novel issue, but with the rise of national and global movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up — it has been on the forefront of our social, political and business conversations. Hollywood has cast a spotlight on sexual harassment and the sometimes imperfect protocols in place to address concerns. These issues are appearing in the headlines, TV shows, and social media platforms with the potential impacts of destroying a company’s goodwill and bottom line.

In response to this outcry and several industries’ spotting an opportunity to get involved, the technology-driven community has responded with mobile apps, anonymous grievance non-profit websites, new third-party consulting companies, and modernized hotline services. The goals of these new technologies and strategies is to heed complaints and optimize an employer’s response.

The Current State of Things

Before touching on the reporting outlets, it is critical to understand why a demand for such services exist. Historically, there have been studies that note the resistance to workplace harassment reporting. This could be attributed to a fear of employer retaliation, unwanted peer attention, distress in confronting a perpetrator or lack of trust in workplace changes following such a complaint. Sometimes employees simply do not know or recall where to find the protocol for filing harassment incidents. These are among the reasons the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other organizations shine a close light on the response procedures employed by a company.

Many employers use a host of different practices designed to make reporting as simple and effective as possible. These range from traditional reporting to a supervisor or HR in writing or in person, to the use of a designated ombudsman, email submissions and hotline phone numbers. The goal is to encourage the reporting of complaints, so they can be resolved.

A New Twist on Reporting

Mobile Applications: Glued to our phones, it only follows that harassment and employment complaint apps have been created for the workforce. When reporting an issue is easy and familiar, it stands to reason that more information will be transmitted to the business. One example app uses a subscription-based service employers can purchase and integrate into internal procedures. The app allows workers to identify themselves and their location or remain anonymous and pick from different pre-set messages to indicate the nature and severity of the concern. These apps also allow an employee to include documents, images or videos that are sent to their choice of two to four default managers who will receive the correspondence. These services claim to provide a safe space for raising concerns, free from external interference.

Consulting Groups: Third-party consulting groups have also responded to the need for something new by creating company-specific online environments where employees can file complaints. In turn, the consultants will assess the complaint, write an action plan on what type of investigation is needed, and provide an external “expert” to do a workplace investigation for inappropriate behavior. These companies tout experienced personnel that investigate the issue while avoiding the purported “inherent bias” human resources personnel may hold toward the complainant or accused employee.

Hotline Services: Outsourced workplace harassment and discrimination hotline services are not new, but seemed to have stepped up their game as well. Typically, hotlines provide a company-specific phone number, voicemail box and email address where employees can voice grievances. Instead of merely transmitting the collected data to employers, the third-party services are now also offering more involvement in employee complaints. Several now offer to have “experienced” human resource professionals produce a report that allows the employer to handle the issue internally, or chose an external route to be handled by a “team of experts,” similar to the aforementioned consulting process.

Will This Help My System?

While additional reporting processes can be beneficial to obtaining data and addressing complaints, using an external service does nothing to change any of the employer’s obligations. If an employer’s practices and implementation of strategy aren’t already strong, implementing the “hot new thing” would simply serve as a rearrangement of chairs on the deck of the Titanic, and not really solve much. In considering whether to add this to its arsenal, employers would have to trust that the individuals involved with their complaints are, in fact, qualified to handle them. Failures along the way will still fall on the shoulders of an employer.

An employer’s uniform response to delicate situations can help defend against retaliation claims stemming from harassment reports; however, it is difficult to remember, and thus repeat, how you responded to a previous situation without accessible and thorough documentation. Outsourcing the complaint to a third-party technology may assist in providing a platform employers can reference when handling a new grievance. However, these services can also expose employers to cybersecurity issues. This false sense of security can end in costly litigation if you do not audit these services on an annual basis. Complaints lost in the cloud will result in claims against employers, not the app.

These external systems also do not address the alleged “bias” concern plaintiffs often argue exist. These systems would still be contracted and paid for by the employer, who will have likely partnered with the third party to set up the system. And as the third party works with the employer over time and learns its business, a relationship between the parties (and a desire to keep the employer happy so the relationship continues) will likely develop. It is unclear how a third party will avoid the same arguments of bias that an internal process will face. This further rings true because the relationship’s collaborative nature still has the employer making the ultimate decision on next steps in response to a complaint.

On the flip side, employers who choose not to utilize such services may not be out of reach of their effects. There are organizations creating anonymous hotlines that allow employees from any company to submit a report that in turn is “instantly” sent to who they deem the appropriate individuals within the complainant’s organization. And Silicon Valley has created smartphone apps that allow employees to anonymously report an incident to the company’s chief executive and board. This places the burden on those who receive these complaints, who may not be the person within an organization able to respond quickly enough, to send them through the proper channels. Even though these systems may provide another means for employees to feel as though they have raised a concern, there is no guarantee it gets into the company and to someone who can address it.

The Takeaways

There have been many assessments on how to minimize incidents of harassment and create a zero-tolerance environment for such scenarios. Initially, these new systems may seem like the right solution, but if you are integrating protocols that are not followed by the head of the company to the grassroots, a palpable workplace change and a legally sound grievance procedure is unlikely.

The benefit of these outlets include the creation of additional accessible channels workers may feel safe utilizing, but does not guarantee the complaint gets in the hand of the person who has the power to address it. Using a third party to assess complaints may avoid alleged HR biases in theory, but the company’s relationship with the service and ultimate decision-making ability weakens the practicality of that benefit.

These resources may represent the future of reporting and thus require employers to proactively adopt policies and training to avoid being blindsided by their arrival. Ultimately, the release of numerous online lists pointing out sexual harassment perpetrators and the rise in anonymous direct-to-company complaints may create an ethical duty to prepare your staff on how to process the information. Should you chose to contract these grievance reporting services, it would be wise to conduct internal training on how to utilize it and what human resources/supervisors should do when they receive notice of a complaint. Finally, evaluate and update your workplace harassment and reporting policies.

Ensure your company has the internal knowledge it needs to react when the time comes. And always feel free to reach out to your favorite Seyfarth employment lawyer for guidance on how to implement and maintain the most effective and appropriate processes as we march toward the future of harassment reporting.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Wishing you a wonderful holiday season. 

As we begin the traditional start of the holiday season and before the crush of the end of the year is upon us, we wanted to take a moment to thank you – the readers of the Employment Law Lookout Blog – for your loyal readership and feedback.  We strive to make our reports entertaining and helpful and hope that you find them so.

We are also pleased to announce that the Firm’s Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference has been updated and is now available for your review and use.  Please see below for how to register to receive both an on-line as well as hard copy of this publication.

On behalf of the entire Seyfarth blog team, thank you.  Have a safe, happy and peaceful Holiday Weekend.

Now Available! Seyfarth Shaw’s 2017-2018 Edition  of the Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference

There is no denying that social media continues to transform the way companies conduct business. In light of the rapid evolution of social media, companies today face significant legal challenges on a variety of issues ranging from employee privacy and protected activity to data practices, identity theft, cybersecurity, and protection of intellectual property.

Seyfarth Shaw is pleased to provide you with the 2017–2018 edition of our easy-to-use guide to social media privacy legislation and what employers need to know. The Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference:

  • Describes the content and purpose of the various states’ new social media privacy laws.
  • Delivers a detailed state-by-state description of each law, listing a general overview, what is prohibited, what is allowed, the remedies for violations, and special notes for each statute.
  • Provides an easy-to-use chart listing on one axis the states that have enacted social media privacy legislation, and on the other, whether each state’s law contains one or more key features.
  • Offers our thoughts on the implications of this legislation in other areas, including trade secret misappropriation, bring your own device issues and concerns, social media discovery and evidence considerations, and use of social media in internal investigations.
  • Concludes with some best practices to assist companies in navigating this challenging area.

How To Get Your Desktop Reference

To request the 2017–2018 Edition of the Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference as a pdf or hard copy, please click here.

 

 

By Christopher Im and Sharisse R. Deal

Seyfarth Synopsis: Private employers can face competing obligations when it comes to responding to employees’ expressive conduct. Employee rights may collide with employer obligations to maintain a safe and harassment-free work environment, not to mention the employer’s interest in maintaining productivity and avoiding adverse publicity. Here are some guiding principles.

“How’s work?” A common question, whether at a party, catching up with an old friend, or just as small talk. It is also a common topic of online conversation. It would be nice if work-related remarks were always positive, agreeable and civil, but, of course, they are not. The reality is that employees sometimes say offensive things about work, their employer, their co-workers, or a co-worker’s cherished political hero or ideals.

And what of the employee who attends a political rally—either as a protester or counter-protester—or does not attend, but merely posts or tweets an incendiary opinion about the event?

What is an employer’s recourse when such communications cross the line? Where is the line?

As a general rule, unless the employee is using company-owned equipment or systems, employers cannot police their employees’ expression. Various California statutes protect employees’ rights to engage in lawful, off-duty conduct (Lab. Code §§ 96, 98.6) and political activity (Lab. Code §§ 1102, 1103), to say nothing of the California constitutional right to privacy, which applies in both the public and private sectors. Meanwhile, the federal National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from chilling employee participation in concerted activity with respect to their terms and conditions of employment.

Generally, as long as controversial comments and ideas are lawfully expressed, do not implicate a protected class (such as race, religion, gender), do not name or implicate the employer, and remain out of the workplace, they are none of the employer’s business.

The trouble starts when a controversial comment is not lawfully expressed, implicates a protected class, implicates the employer, or has a deleterious effect in the workplace. Competing against the employee rights set out above are the employer’s duties to prevent and correct harassment in the workplace and to provide a safe workplace. Failure to do so can lead to hostile work environment or retaliation claims, regardless of whether the harassment comes from a supervisor or a co-worker.

Not all offensive remarks will be cause for concern: to get from “how’s work?” to a hostile work environment claim, an employee’s comments must relate to a protected status and be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter working conditions. But in todays’ highly charged political environment, many people look to their places of employment as the last bastion of civility and stability. Discussion of events, images, symbols, or social media memes concerning topics as varied as immigration, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and the history of American slavery and its aftermath may, depending on the communication’s content and context, be freighted with racial or gender connotations.

For most people, perception is reality. Remarks or conduct that several years ago would not have raised an eyebrow may now lead to multiple disgruntled people in the HR office, seeking action. And while California employees are guaranteed privacy, the privacy right does not prevent an appropriate reaction from an employer in response to a public online posting, text message, or comment. As someone once said: “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.”

There is no magic bullet to making sure your employees play nice. But there are several steps you can take to ensure that they know what will and will not be tolerated. You can set employee expectations by implementing or reminding them of your anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy, your code of conduct, your “zero tolerance” policy regarding violence, your social media policy, and your rules concerning use of company internet and other electronic communication systems. We recommend that employers articulate a strong business purpose to justify any occasions when they must intrude on an employee’s privacy, and never intrude more than is necessary to serve that business purpose.

Interpretation of the laws around employee workplace rights and the intersection with employer duties to comply with anti-harassment and OSHA laws are constantly evolving, particularly with the ever-increasing use of social media. To help stay current, don’t hesitate to contact your favorite Seyfarth attorney.

 

 

By Karla E. Sanchez and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employer must reinstate four employees after it terminated the employees for agreeing with a former coworker’s email that complained about their terms and conditions of employment.

Recently, a National Labor Relations Board Administrative Law Judge ruled that a restaurant unlawfully reprimanded and discharged several employees in violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations ActMexican Radio Corp., Case No. 02-CA-168989 (April 26, 2017).

A series of disagreements between a new manager and several of the restaurant’s employees led to several employees reaching out to management to complain about the new manager and to one employee quitting her employment. After resigning, the employee sent management and several of her former coworkers a lengthy email that management described as “hurtful and mean spirited.”  The email went through the reasons why she had worked at the restaurant, why she had loved working with her coworkers, and how the new manager had changed that.  She complained about how the new manager treated them, how several coworkers had complained to other managers, who according to her, did nothing, and she alleged that the new manager was engaging in unlawful conduct. Four employees replied to the email in agreement with the sender and thanked her for sending the email.

Management, who also received the coworkers’ replies, viewed the replies as “deeply insubordinate.” As a result, management decided to meet with the four coworkers to ask them on an individual basis why they had supported their former coworker and agreed with the contents of the email. All four were discharged for, among other things, allegedly engaging in insubordination and agreeing with an email that contained “false accusations of management” and had used “inappropriate language,” including profanity.

The ALJ found that the restaurant unlawfully discharged the four employees for replying to the former coworkers’ email. The ALJ found that the employees’ conduct had been protected, concerted activity. The ALJ noted that these four employees had complained to management about the new manager and about their working conditions and that their replies to the email was an extension of this protected, concerted activity. The email itself also addressed their working conditions, and thus, responding to it was also protected, concerted activity.

The restaurant tried to argue that the email was “opprobrious conduct,” and therefore, lost the protections of the Act. The ALJ disagreed, finding:

  • The four employees did not add anything negative to the original email;
  • The email was a part of an ongoing dialogue between the restaurant and the workers;
  • The email contained little profanity and did not constitute insubordination, but rather, was “a critique of the management style” of the restaurant;
  • The email was distributed internally and did not cause a loss of reputation or business for the restaurant; and
  • The email did not cause a disruption of the business.

The ALJ ordered the restaurant to reinstate the four employees to their former positions, to make them whole for their lost earnings, to pay them for their job-search and interim employment expenses, to remove any reprimands from their files, and to post at the restaurant a standard NLRB notice.

The takeaway for employers:  Employers must be careful when confronted by employees’ criticisms, complaints, and allegations, whether in person, by email, or by posting on social media platforms.  While some “complaints” might not be protected by law and/or might constitute insubordination, an employer should discuss the particulars with an attorney before determining whether the conduct warrants discipline or termination.  Some “complaints,” even when profanity is used and even when they are hurtful to the reader, are protected under the NLRA or other laws, and adverse conduct taken against the employees will be found to be unlawful.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Social Media Team or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By Scott Rabe and Samuel Sverdlov

Seyfarth Synopsis: With seemingly every employee having access to a smart-phone or other recording device, employers without strong social media policies may be placing themselves at greater risk of creating workplace incidents that could be avoided. 

Just a few weeks ago, a video leaked of Los Angeles Lakers rookie, D’Angelo Russell, recording teammate, Nick Young, describing adulterous sexual encounters with a 19-year-old during his engagement to pop star, Iggy Azalea.  The incident has since been described as a prank that backfired.  But this “prank,” and the ensuing media attention it drew, has caused the Los Angeles Lakers to endure a media frenzy, a fractured locker room, and being booed by their hometown fans.

The Lakers incident is just one of the more recent, and public, examples of the risks employers face when employees introduce audio and video recording devices into the workplace. Viral videos such as this example may tarnish a company’s reputation.  A leaked audio recording may disclose important company trade secrets or confidential information.  Or a video recording may misleadingly appear to reveal unlawful practices at a company that could lead to litigation or other unwanted attention.

Where employers may once have understood the work place to be a semi-private space, that has changed. As a result, information and behavior that could be counted on to remain within the confines of the workplace now has the potential to become very public very quickly, with some pretty hefty consequences.

So what can employers do?

One of the best things an employer can do to hedge against these risks is to create a comprehensive social media policy that explicitly defines employee responsibilities with regard to social media. The social media policy should:

  • be geared towards the company’s business and its workforce;
  • underscore the importance of acting professionally when utilizing social media in connection with work as well as the importance of, where possible, maintaining a separation between personal and professional use of social media;
  • strictly prohibit the sharing of non-public confidential or proprietary information, or trade secrets, on social media;
  • be distributed to new hires at orientation and be regularly provided as a reminder to existing employees;
  • make clear that employees can be disciplined for violating the employer guidelines.

An employer may also want to consider putting in place a policy that regulates the use of audio or videotaping in the workplace more generally.   Although the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has said that wholesale bans on video recording in the workplace are unlawful since they could deter employees from exercising rights guaranteed to them under the NLRA, an employer may want to put in place a policy that prohibits surreptitious recording in the workplace or one that prohibits recording of other employees in the workplace without permission. Additionally, employers should be mindful that many states prohibit any kind of video or audio recording where all participants do not consent to being recorded. Given the scrutiny social media policies receive, however, employers are encouraged to consult with counsel before implementing any policy governing the use of audiotaping or videotaping in the workplace.

Employers should also consider making an investment in the education of managers and supervisors regarding best practices for upholding and enforcing the company’s social media and video recording policies. Given the ubiquity of social media today and its importance to employees’ personal and professional lives, there is significant value to employers in having a workforce that is educated on how to use social media effectively while avoiding potential costly pitfalls.

Warning to Employers: Employee audio and video recordings may be protected

The NLRB has taken an aggressive stance in the last few years in connection with its regulation of employer-imposed limitations on social media use. (To read more about the NLRB’s take on social media use, please see our blogs: here and here.)  In particular, the NLRB has taken increasing action against employers who have sought to prohibit employees from engaging in public discourse regarding the terms and conditions of their employment, especially when such discourse occurs on social media.   As a result, employers need to be careful that their social media and related policies do not place undue limitation on the forum or content where employees can engage in discourse regarding their employment.  For example, an employee’s video post to YouTube where she complains about her wages likely would be considered protected concerted action, and the employer could face liability for interfering.

Relatedly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has also made clear that it views the prohibition by an employer of an employee from recording evidence of discrimination by video or audio means may be “retaliation.” This is true even if the employer maintains a workplace policy forbidding such recording.  Thus, employers should be extra careful before disciplining or regulating the conduct of employees who have already raised claims or complaints against the company.

For more information, please contact the authors, your local Seyfarth attorney or a member of Seyfarth’s Social Media Practice Group [http://www.seyfarth.com/SocialMedia].

By Hillary J. Massey

iStock_000048141232_LargeEmployees’ social media activities often play a key role in workplace investigations.

For example, an employee may complain that a coworker sent a harassing Facebook message or posted something offensive on Twitter regarding race, religion, or disability. Employers handling investigations into such conduct should be aware that state laws may restrict employers’ requests for information about an employee’s social media activity.

Fifteen states have passed, and many other states have considered, laws addressing whether and how employers may access employees’ social media accounts. The laws, in varying degrees, prohibit employers from requiring employees and applicants to provide access to their social media accounts through username/password disclosures, by requiring them to open their page in a manager’s presence, or by requiring them to “friend” a manager. While some states explicitly permit access during the course of an investigation into employment-related misconduct, others do not address the issue. Courts have had few opportunities to interpret the laws.

A recent case in Mississippi demonstrates how social media activity may become part of an investigation. Although the case involves a public school, and thus constitutional rights that are not applicable to private employment, the facts are similar to common workplace issues. The case was brought against a school and teachers by the parents of a high school student who was suspended from the cheerleading team as a result of her social media posts. A teacher who had received reports from students that the plaintiff sent threatening Facebook messages to another student required all of the members of the cheerleading squad to give her their Facebook usernames and passwords. She inspected their accounts, determined that the plaintiff’s messages were threatening, and suspended the plaintiff from the team for two weeks.

The lawsuit alleged that the Facebook search violated the cheerleader’s constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of speech. After the lower court refused to dismiss the lawsuit on summary judgment, the appellate court reversed, concluding that the teacher and school were entitled to “qualified immunity” (and thus, not liable) for the Facebook search because the law concerning students’ rights to privacy was not clearly established at the time.

While there is no “qualified immunity” for private employers, employers may find themselves investigating similar allegations. And, like the teacher, employers may be inclined to demand account information to further their investigations. While this is permissible in some states, the law remains unclear in the majority of states. Thus, employers should consider training managers and human resources representatives who handle such investigations to be sure they understand the limits of their authority.

Seyfarth’s Social Media practice group has prepared an easy-to-use “Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference” as a starting point for employers faced with workplace investigations and other social media privacy issues. Contact the author, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Social Media group with any questions.

By: Erin Dougherty Foley

On Monday, Apple unveiled its new MacBook (which is as pretty as it is light and nimble), number of new health related apps called “ResearchKit” (that claim to be able to help diagnose and monitor the progress of diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s) and the much anticipated Apple Watch.  The watch appears to work like an iPhone, letting you send and receive text messages, check music, use Uber, unlock your hotel room and pay for stuff – as well as make and receive phone calls.  (In fact, you have to have an iPhone to make the watch work.)  The watch also has a built in health conscious app that nudges you when you’ve been sitting for too long, tracks your steps and monitors other health factors.

While it appeared that they were still working out some of the kinks and they haven’t solved the problem of “how does a 45+ year old set of eyes see something quite that small without embarrassing your children by holding the phone that close to your face,” most of the live chats  and bloggers that we monitored during the launch seemed pretty impressed with what Apple was hawking.

Of course, then the lawyers have to weigh in.

The release of the Apple Watch and ResearchKit reinforce the need for employers to consider the impact wearable technology has on how their companies keep time records, track employee working time versus “off the clock” activities, and enforces existing EEO (anti-discrimination, harassment or retaliation) policies as well as how all of these technological advancements will interact with existing federal and state labor, employment and wage & hour laws.

There are so many exciting ways this emerging technology can be used in the work place: from new training opportunities, to innovative forms of employee collaboration; to tracking and monitoring employee performance and productivity.  But this technology also brings new issues related to maintaining confidential business information, employee personal health information, and data security issues; workplace safety and employee/employer expectations regarding privacy in the workplace.  Even forward thinking employers willing to embrace this new technology with open arms (or available wrist space) should take the time to review (and most likely update) their existing policies and procedures.

We’ll be monitoring the issues and questions that the latest Apple gadget(s) and other wearable technology pose to employers and keeping you up to date on all the latest gear.  If you have questions, feel free to contact the author, who is a member of Seyfarth’s Social Media Team or your Seyfarth lawyer.

By: Erin Dougherty Foley

Picture this. You arrive at work only to be met by the employee who always seems to know everything about all that’s going on and that person hands you a copy of the “tweet” that another employee posted right before arriving at work this morning. The tweet reads: “Whoa, just ran someone over on my way into the office. Hope he’s OK.”

A few minutes later your local police department calls and asks to interview the employee. A few minutes after that—the President of your company storms in and says he’s gotten several calls from suppliers who heard about the incident and are demanding that something be done about it.

What to do? What to do?   First. Investigate.

What not to do?   Panic.

You call the employee in—and the employee sheepishly tells you that the tweet was a joke and that he had actually taken the train to work that day, and did not drive. Now what?

This actually happened at the end of last year. A British company learned that its employee had sent a fake tweet similar to the one above and fired him.

Some called the action excessive. Others felt that it was appropriate given the poor judgment of the employee (not to mention the fact that the tweet went viral and was retweeted over 150 times).

But let’s break this down a little bit and identify some things to consider in the event something similar happens (heaven forbid!).

  • Did it happen? Confirm with the local law enforcement as to whether an accident occurred. If your employee is lying to you – well that’s a significant factor to consider.
  • What did the employee say? Or rather, what was the subject of the tweet (or the blog post, or the Facebook Post, or the Instagram Picture, etc.)? Did the employee say something that otherwise violates some other company policy? (Did he publish a trade secret? Did he communicate financial information in violation of SEC rules? Did he say something harassing or discriminatory?). If yes to any of these, then there might be cause to discipline the employee (yes, up to and including termination).
  • Wait! Did the employee say something that might be considered “protected concerted activity?” (See our earlier blog post about what that means.)  If yes: call your legal department (or your favorite Seyfarth lawyer). As we’ve blogged about before, discipline for social media conduct is very high on the NLRB’s radar – perhaps better to fly under that radar for the time being.

If your hypothetical employee has not been self-eliminated yet – ask a couple of more questions:

  • Who is the employee? In other words, what role does this employee play within your organization? Does the employee regularly engage in social media as part of his or her job duties?
  • Did the employee identify herself as your employee in the social media account she uses? (Remember Justine Sacco, the media representative who tweeted an offensive statement before leaving for South African and was promptly sacked shortly after landing in South Africa?) As one article put it: “Her whole job revolved around communicating with reporters—which made her Twitter comment about Africa all the more shocking.”)

It’s appropriate to consider what role the employee plays within the organization when making any disciplinary decision. If it’s an employee who “should have known better,” it’s OK to factor that into your decision.

It’s probably not appropriate to consider the opinions of the media or general public (they always want to burn the witch don’t they?). It’s a closer call when it comes to your clients or customers; should it be a factor–sure, but probably shouldn’t be the only factor.

OK, let’s return to the scene of the crime – hold on – there was no crime. Remember, our hypothetical crime did not happen; the employee claimed it was a joke. So, now what? Well, go back to the drawing board, or in this case, your policies and procedures. Do you have a Code of Conduct? Do you have a social media policy? Do either of those identify conduct that this employee violated? (See our first discussion points above).

Is there anything wrong with terminating someone for simply exercising bad judgment? No, provided that the decision is not otherwise motivated by some other discriminatory intent or in response to some other protected activity (i.e., not retaliatory – see our blog post on that topic). Each situation (like any other disciplinary scenario) has to be considered both in the context of the individual events as well as how the company has reacted to other employee misconduct. Consistency is a key factor in fending off otherwise messy employee litigation.

Was the decision to terminate the British employee excessive? That’s probably one best left to the court of public opinion.

If you have questions about this topic, please contact the author, who is also a member of Seyfarth’s Social Media Team, or your Seyfarth attorney.